Middle East

Did Syria End Its Hegemony Over Lebanon?

A Lebanese woman walks past election campaign posters of Saad Hariri

A Lebanese woman walks past election campaign posters of Saad Hariri, the son of slain former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, in Beirut, on May 25. Lebanon votes on May 29 in what is being hailed as the first truly free elections in three decades. (Photo: Joseph Barrak / AFP-Getty Images)

The Syrians entered Lebanon in 1976, ostensibly as peacekeepers and to protect the Lebanese Christian minority. After the war ended in 1990, about 40,000 Syrian troops remained, giving Damascus the decisive say in Lebanese politics.

Anger over the Feb. 14 assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri helped turn the tide against Syria’s long-time presence in Lebanon.

Unconvinced by Syrian and Lebanese government denials of involvement, pressure to leave snowballed. Huge “Syria Out” demonstrations in Beirut brought down the pro-Syrian government, and United Nations and United States pressure intensified on Damascus until it withdrew its army.

General Ali Habib, Syria’s chief of staff, said in a speech during the departure ceremony in which the last 250 Syrian soldiers in Lebanon participated, that President Bashar al-Assad had decided to pull out his troops after the Lebanese army was “rebuilt on sound national foundations and became capable of protecting the state.”

General Habib said Syria had no “ambitions in Lebanon, except to protect it”; thus, by withdrawing, Syria will have “fulfilled all its obligations” toward the United Nations Resolution 1559.

After more than three decades of using Lebanon as their satellite country in the region, it was about time Syria respected the sovereignty of its neighbor. The world should not be deceived. Without pressure from France, the United Nations and mainly the United States, the Syrians would not have felt that their troops do not belong on foreign soil. The fact that President Assad never respected the 1989 Taef agreement, which called for the very same thing, namely complete withdrawal, raises some valid questions about the objectives of the Syrians in Lebanon.

Nonetheless, such a long and powerful influence did not end with the withdrawal of military troops. What about the secret services? If they are out of the town of Anjar, does it really mean that they did not choose another location? Who can verify that? And, more worrying what about the hundreds if not thousands of people who were on their payroll? The Syrians were in control of every institutional level in Lebanon, starting with the president, the Parliament and the government.

The Electoral Law

The Lebanese interior minister, Hassan Al Sabaa, has signed a decree authorizing the holding of elections in three stages. The process is to begin on May 29 and will end on June 12. The new Lebanese caretaker government, lead by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a wealthy businessman and a pro-Syrian moderate politician, won the confidence vote of both the pro-Syrian and the opposition camp. In the next weeks there are few challenges ahead of it and the first and most important one, is drawing an electoral law.

The electoral law is a very controversial issue; the system based on mohafaza or large governorates would better suit the interests of the Muslims, while the system based on qadas or small governorates would better suit the Christian minority. And to add to the dilemma, the above systems are full of flaws, thus by choosing either, the elections can be easily manipulated. The 2000 law places Christian voters and candidates at the mercy of Muslims in virtually all electoral districts in order to impose the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal hegemony in the South of Lebanon and to protect the political position of feudal lords like Walid Jumblatt in the mountains, and the Hariri family’s position in Beirut.

If the government and the Parliament would have worked together, which unfortunately is not the case in Lebanon, then they should have come up with a new, more fair and balanced law. Nonetheless, because the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, ignored the opposition’s call to discuss a new electoral law, the controversial 2000 law will be used in the upcoming Parliamentary elections.

In Lebanon, there is a very close connection between religious affiliation, political power, tribal leadership and financial resources; in fact this interdependence has plagued the country for decades and might put in danger the democratic future of the country. The three major plagues are political feudalism, where you have a few families who maintain their traditional grip on power, religious feudalism, which basically denies the Lebanese individual any rights outside his or her religious community, and financial feudalism, where wealthy individuals are using their money to buy political positions and influence.

All the above are driving Lebanon into the dark ages. In this context, it’s no wonder that Chouf M.P. Walid Jumblatt, who is one of the most dynamic members of the opposition, dramatically cut himself loose from the opposition’s main election campaign by naming his candidates and enlarging the Democratic Gathering bloc in Parliament without accommodating his new allies. Jumblatt warned supporters against voting for those who are challenging his leadership of the Druze community. Jumblatt asks for democracy while doing his best to hold on to his power as the leader of the Druze community and to further pass on his position and influence to his son. Inheriting political positions is one of the most common facts in Lebanon, although it can hardly be called a democratic procedure.

The Return of the General

United States Senator Elliot Engel recently declared that Lebanese emigrants in the United States and France had a major impact on the recent turn of events inside their native country through the passing by Congress of the Syria Accountability and Restoration of Lebanese Sovereignty Act (S.A.L.S.R.A.) and United Nations Resolution 1559. One of the most prominent and active supporters of S.A.L.S.R.A. and Resolution 1559 was General Michel Aoun, who testified in front of Congress and was subsequently accused of treason by the pro-Syrian Lebanese government.

The “isolated” general, as the Lebanese media called him, returned from his 15-year exile in Paris to Beirut earlier this month, and many on the Lebanese street say that he may run for president when the opportunity arises. Whether or not he will be supported in his endeavors by the majority of the Lebanese people remains unclear. But, there are those who say that Lebanon needs a president from within the country, someone who has fought for change and someone who had experienced all the privation the people suffered because of Syrian hegemony. Michel Aoun, in spite of his struggle for a free and independent Lebanon is part of the old guard and may not be the best choice for the presidency.

The Free Patriotic Movement, which General Aoun heads, is determined to overhaul Lebanese politics and impose secularism in a country where citizenship is worth nothing, and religious affiliation everything.

“We must change the political habits of Lebanon in order to transform it into a modern state,” General Aoun said in one of the numerous interviews he gave ahead of his much-touted return.

Future Ties Between Damascus and Beirut

Nayla Moawad, one of the three women M.P.s of the current parliament and widow of former Lebanese president Rene Moawad, recently told me: “Lebanon cannot be ruled from Syria, but Lebanon cannot be ruled against Syria.” Therefore, the best solution for Lebanon is to establish a friendly partnership based on mutual respect. In order to make it reality, the Syrians have to completely withdraw from Lebanon (military and intelligence forces), release all Lebanese prisoners it has held, and continues to hold, in its prisons in violation of all human rights treaties they have signed and ratified, and agree to the long overdue requirement to exchange diplomatic relations with Lebanon by posting a Syrian ambassador in Beirut. Syria has refused to do so since the independence of the two countries, despite Lebanese requests to establish diplomatic relations. By way of underscoring Lebanon’s sovereignty, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher recently declared: “We have always urged Syria to recognize Lebanon as a separate and independent state and to establish an embassy there, as a symbolically important step.”

Since 1990 when it completed its takeover of Lebanon, Syria has imposed on successive Lebanese governments a number of agreements that essentially subjugated Lebanon to Syria in all aspects of life: economic, educational, security, military, immigration, customs, etc. In his first visit to Syria newly appointed Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Beirut and Damascus would begin reviewing their future relations in the wake of the pullout. Speaking alongside his Syrian counterpart Naji Otari, Mikati said a joint commission will “examine all accords between the two countries to ensure they are in the interests of the two, and are implemented with respect to their sovereignty and independence.” The commission may very well amend Syria and Lebanon’s 1991 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, which provides close coordination in the political, economic and security areas, when the Syrian hegemony over Lebanon was at its peak. Mikati also said that a separate commission would examine the plight of Lebanese prisoners held in Syria. Syria released a group of Lebanese prisoners four years ago, at which time the two capitals said the issue had been settled. But non-governmental organizations argue that 440 Lebanese have disappeared or been detained in Syria for years, among them prisoners who were teenagers when they were seized. In an interview with the Spanish daily El Pais Prime Minister Otari of Syria said any remaining prisoners were “terrorists.” Otari also claimed the detainees were members of the South Lebanon Army militia, which collaborated with the Israeli Army, then occupying South Lebanon. Declining to give a number for those detained, he said: “These people were fighting alongside Israel and killed Syrian soldiers. Obviously they were punished, like terrorists in Spain or other countries.” Commenting on bilateral relations between the two countries, Otari said that Syria has never had diplomatic relations with Lebanon because Beirut did not want them. If the Syrian president does not comply with Resolution 1559 and continues to ignore the fact that Lebanon is a separate, sovereign country the United States together with the United Nations and the European Union should seek to further implement the 2004 Syrian Accountability Act sanctions and use the stick policy, instead of the carrots one, used so far.

Hezbollah as a Political Actor

While the international community, the United States included, together with the Lebanese opposition, welcomes a strong Hezbollah as a political actor, their guerrilla troops are a matter of concern. What solution should better suit Lebanon?

Since, there is no truce or peace agreement, technically Israel and Lebanon are still at war, therefore Hezbollah’s leadership argues that Lebanon needs its resistance. In 2000, Hezbollah lost its unique chance to exit its armed business on a high point. They have liberated the South, regardless of how much of the story is truth and how much is folklore. Their political platform is non-existent, except the resistance and liberation part and their goal to see Lebanon transformed into a Muslim country. In this context, they can remain viable only if they are in a state of continuous vigilance and if they play the card of liberation and resistance. Nonetheless, what may really scare them is not pressure from the United States or Israel, but rather the fact that once the Shebaa Farms problem is resolved there is no other reason for them to exist as an armed force. The fact that Hezbollah receives huge financial funds and weapons from Iran, via Syria, is another matter of concern. Who are they loyal to? To the ones who are paying them, or to the Lebanese people who are their fellow citizens? These are important questions, which should be addressed by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader. If they liberate themselves from regional interference, then their political profile will be further raised. Having a pragmatic leader such as Sheikh Nasrallah, eventually Hezbollah will disarm for the right price, but Lebanese society as a whole should be the one to find a solution to this problem. Lebanon needs the ongoing assistance of the international community, but not its interference. They have had enough of that.